When she made her debut four years ago as ace D.C. crisis manager Olivia Pope on the ABC drama Scandal, Kerry Washington would not allow herself to dream that the show would ever become the hit that it is. "I didn't have a lot of expectations, to be honest," she admits. "It was a great thing, but I feel like expectations are resentments in waiting. But in a million years, I couldn't have expected the success of the show and the impact that it would have culturally in terms of fashion, changing language, images of gender and the landscape of casting in television."
Nor did she anticipate the impact that Scandal—one of broadcast television's top 10 series in the 18-49 demo—would have on her career.
The actress has secured partnerships with a variety of brands and causes—among them, Neutrogena, Movado, Apple Music and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Now, add the job of producer to Washington's resumé. She not only stars in but is also an executive producer on the HBO original film Confirmation, premiering April 16, which revisits Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' 1991 Senate confirmation hearings—an event that was dominated by the testimony and sexual-harassment accusations of his former assistant, Anita Hill (played by Washington).
Here, Washington talks to Adweek about her hit show, the HBO project, how she helped pioneer the art of live tweeting TV shows, and why she refuses to be just a pretty face for brands.
Why did Confirmation speak to you, as an actress and producer?
I've been wanting to produce for some time because I want to have more creative control over the things that I do, and not be victim to the whims of other people's desires. This story resonated with me because I had really personal memories, not as much about the hearings themselves, because I was probably about 13 when it happened, but I had real memories about how it affected my parents, their feelings about the hearings. And it was one of the first moments that I was made consciously aware of my own identity intersectionality: the idea that there may be times that I feel passionate about something as a person of color, and there may be times that I feel passionate about something as a woman, and there may be times when those two things are at odds with each other. So it was a poignant moment in my own developmental understanding of who I was.
The film is filled with scenarios that will be familiar to Scandal viewers—you're facing off against D.C.'s power players, and surrounded by a pack of reporters—but your Anita Hill is nothing like Olivia Pope. How difficult was it to keep those performances distinct?
One of the reasons I was drawn to the project was because even though the environmental context was similar, this is a woman who is on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of access and power. That part of it was fascinating for me, to flip the circumstance upside down, to not be an insider.
So because it was part of my fundamental understanding and part of what drew me to the project, it wasn't something that I felt like I had to baby-sit because there's nothing about this woman that is like Olivia Pope. It was really freeing for me to do something so different, and a little bit of a relief. I come from film where I only play a character for three months at a time and then it's done, so it's important for me to be able to put on other hats and make sure that all of the tools in my toolbox that don't apply to Olivia Pope are still in shape.
In addition to producing Confirmation, you also developed a show for ABC this season. What have you learned from that process? And what other projects are you working on?
I just really love producing. I love being able to be part of a solution. I love being able to create opportunities for other people to do what they do, to be part of the collaborative process that is filmmaking and television making. And I enjoy being proactive. I enjoy not sitting at home, waiting to be invited to a party [laughs]. I do have a couple of different projects in the works and a couple of different films.
At this point in Scandal's run, are you still happy to let creator Shonda Rhimes and her team take Olivia where they want?
Yeah. I'm not a producer on the show, and I've never sought to be a producer on the show. It's not something that I felt was necessary. Shonda and the writers are in control of that, and I show up and try to bring it to life.
Does she give you a heads up about the show's biggest twists, like your kidnapping storyline last year, or Olivia getting an abortion earlier this season?
No. I had no idea that the abortion scene was coming until I turned the page at the table read and read it out loud with everybody else. There are occasional moments when she'll give me a hint about something that's coming, but it's very, very rare.
These days almost every show has its cast live tweeting each new episode, but you were really the pioneer of that, back in Scandal's first season. How did you discover the benefit of harnessing social media in that way?
I have an amazing social media manager, Allison Peters, who is one of my closest friends since childhood. She convinced me to join Twitter a couple years before the show started, and I knew from my work on the Obama campaign how vital social had been to our being able to elect President [Barack] Obama.
I came across an article about the most tweeted-about shows, sent it to Allison and said, "I want Scandal to be on this list next year." Because I have very small ambitions, as you can tell [laughs]. And she said, "In order to accomplish that, probably everybody on the show should be on Twitter."
So how did you get them on board?
I was really aware of the dynamics of being what they call a "No. 1" on a call sheet. I've never wanted to come across as bossy or abuse that position with my castmates or with the crew. So I called Shonda and said, "If you ask the crew to go on Twitter, then they'll do it because you are our boss." She loved that idea and she didn't demand, but she encouraged everyone to do it—and of course, because she's Shonda Rhimes, everybody did. We have this show that we were really passionate about, and the truth was the network had only given us a limited [first] season, and we wanted to do what we could on a grassroots level to promote the show because we were so proud of it. It came from a really authentic, genuine place, and it caught fire. It became real appointment television, which was lacking on network TV.
You've partnered with so many brands. How do you determine which ones make sense for you to join forces with?
There isn't an algorithm that I plug a brand into. It really is about having an authentic, organic excitement and connection to it and asking myself, is this work that I would be proud of? Do I feel like it will be as rewarding as it is time-consuming? Because for me, none of the partnerships that I'm in are me [just] being the face of something. I am extremely hands-on and integrated in each of my relationships, so it has to be worth it for me. … I worked with companies earlier in my career where I knew very early on when it wasn't a match for me. I'm grateful for that wisdom because now I know how to make those choices.
As part of finding that fit, do you say to those brands, "This is who I am and the show I'm on, and I'm active politically, and you need to be on board with that"?
Yes. I'm not interested in partnering with brands where I have to conform to match their brand identity. If somebody doesn't want to work with me because I do a speech at the Democratic National Convention, that's fine.
You've been involved with Neutrogena since 2013 as a creative consultant and brand ambassador, and helped them launch a new foundation line in January. Why was it so important to you to be so heavily involved?
They are always at the forefront of innovation and science and beauty, and it's not a company rooted in making you feel like you have to be somebody else, using makeup to change you. It's about bettering you, making your skin more healthy so that you can reveal who you are. That perspective felt in line with my own views on female identity and self-esteem. But I knew their cosmetics line was not one that I could utilize, or that women who looked like me could utilize. When I joined the company, I think the darkest foundation shade was tan, and it was not a match for me [laughs]. They wanted to elevate their beauty profile and really lean into their makeup line, relaunch and expand it. I don't want to work places where I don't get to have a voice, and this felt like a place where I actually could have a really important voice. It's been so unbelievably rewarding for me to be literally in the labs and testing products for years.
Was inclusivity also behind your upcoming nail line for OPI, which will have shades for every skin tone?
Yes, but also, I just love Suzi [Weiss-Fischmann, OPI's co-founder and creative director], who is an unbelievable female entrepreneur, a real role model. I also believe in partnering with people you respect and admire, and she built a phenomenal product. Because this is a more limited partnership, it's really much more about the fun of it.
What led to your Apple Music ads with Taraji P. Henson and Mary J. Blige?
That came together through friends of mine: Steve Stoute, who is the head of Translation Marketing, and is like the brother I never had, and Jimmy Iovine at Apple Music. Steve felt like people know the Olivia Pope side of me, and the real-world White House side of me, and the magna cum laude Kerry who gives speeches at commencements, but they don't really know hip-hop Kerry and Kerry from the Bronx, the way Steve does. He felt like that was a part of my brand that I wasn't doing a good enough job getting out there. There aren't a lot of products and a product space that live in that part of my identity that I would necessarily want to partner with, but Apple Music was a no-brainer.
Your longest partnership has been with Movado, which goes back 10 years.
We joke all the time that not a lot of marriages last 10 years, so we must be in love. I think a lot of times people are scared to take risks in terms of the evolution of their brand or artistic activity because they are nervous about losing professional relationships. And Movado has never wavered. When I didn't know if I was going to ever do another movie again, when I was doing a play on Broadway and it was costing me money rather than making money, other companies may have been like, "Well, Broadway isn't really a high profile … ." But Movado said, "Great, we'll buy the back page of Playbill." They have trusted in my journey.
And now you've incorporated their watches into Scandal and Confirmation.
I wouldn't if I wasn't a fan of the product. For Confirmation, I knew that I wanted to have a real vintage watch. Her watch at the time was 10 or 15 years old, so I had to go into archives to find watches from the late '70s, early '80s. And I was like, oh, I know exactly where to go for a watch archive! [laughs].
Hillary Clinton stopped by the Scandal set in February. How did that come about?
I'm really close to the campaign. I had recorded a few radio spots for the campaign. Hillary was in town for a fundraiser, and Tony [Goldwyn, who plays President Fitzgerald Grant] and I thought we might get off work in time to go, but we didn't. So I emailed Huma [Abedin, Clinton's longtime aide] and said, "Why don't you guys come here?" And they were able to. It was very surreal, because at some point you couldn't tell the difference between our pretend Secret Service on the show, and the real Secret Service walking on the set. We had this wonderful evening with her, hanging out.
Did that inspire the "I'm With Hillary" ad you and fellow TGIT stars Viola Davis and Ellen Pompeo appeared in last month with Shonda?
Huma had the idea to do the ad. I can't imagine it hadn't been slightly inspired by her visit. And she asked Tony to direct it, which was great because Tony directs a lot of the episodes. They separately asked each of us because it was important to each of us that this not look like a TGIT ad; these were individual women making a choice to stand with her. This was not dictated from above, from Shonda. And it came together remarkably fast. We did it on a Saturday, and I think a couple of days later it was on national television.
Have you started to think about what you want the next phase of your career to be like after Scandal ends?
I don't know specifically what's next. I found the experience of producing on Confirmation to be extremely rewarding. I learned a great deal, but I also feel like I was able to bring a lot to the table, and that was a really rewarding experience. So producing will definitely be part of it. I am really loving design and I want to continue in that area. But I'm not sure. I'm going to continue to follow the opportunities that really speak to me authentically and genuinely, and see where they lead.
This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.